london pubs

Notes from London in the season of the plague

London, a week before Christmas, mist around the tops of the skyscrapers, and the pubs are as quiet as country churches.

We had this London trip in the calendar for a while, planned around a work commitment, and designed to get a load of pre-Christmas family and friends stuff ticked off at the same time.

As news broke about Omicron, we considered cancelling, but those family obligations made it feel right and necessary to get on the train.

Then, as it happened, things got cancelled and we were there with not much to do except go to the pub.

As it had been a while since we last visited London, we had an urge to check in on old favourites – both pubs and breweries.

It’s interesting how we still perceive Fuller’s and Young’s to be essential touchpoints, even though the former is now a multinational and the latter isn’t brewed anywhere near London. 

We’re not alone in this: we noted that CAMRA’s London Drinker magazine still starts its brewery news round-up with news from those two, bloody-mindedness tied with nostalgia.

On the first night, our target was a Fuller’s pub in the City of London proper. Based on our observations of the Tube the day before, we guessed rightly that most places would be pretty quiet and, sure enough, our first stop, the Hung, Drawn & Quartered near the Tower of London, had only a handful of people trying to make the best of things beneath its high ceilings.

There seems to be a strange pattern with flagship Fuller’s and Young’s pubs which is that one of the cask ales will be outstanding, one will be fine, and one will be tired and/or about to go to vinegar. But you never know which it’s going to be.

In pre-Covid days, Jess would often ask for a sample just to find out which one was on shift as the stunner that evening. On this occasion, we had a pint of each and found that it was good old London Pride that was really in the mood to sing.

When it’s tired, or even a bit less than fresh, this beer can taste like cornflakes and dishwater; when it’s good, biscuity malt, flowery hops and stony bitterness harmonise beautifully.

For a moment, we relaxed. There was plenty of room, all was calm, all was bright. Then a group of people came and sat on the table right next to us – a bit odd in a mostly empty pub. 

That prompted us to move on to a pub we’d always wanted to visit but which had always been either too busy, or totally shut. That is, The Swan, next to Leadenhall Market.

This is pub is more passageway than building to the extent that most of the pub furniture was outside rather than in. As it was a fairly balmy evening, we sat outside, just to one side of some kind of work Christmas do, and enjoyed Jack Frost, Fuller’s seasonal special.

We hadn’t really appreciated this in the past and certainly early on in our blogging days used to moan that it was yet another brown beer in a range already full of them. We thought it was pretty dull and pretty sweet. Perhaps the addition of blackberries makes it hard to hit a consistent flavour, or maybe we just didn’t know what we were talking about. This time, at any rate, we found it exotic enough, with a touch of fruit, but generally edging into a Burton Ale territory, much like Young’s Winter Warmer.

Once we’d had that thought, we needed to find Winter Warmer itself so, the following day, we headed for The Founders Arms, a modern riverside Young’s pub which really is a lot better than it needs to be. It has an amazing view across the river; interesting, surprisingly decent food; and, of course, a solid line up of Young’s beers, plus St Austell Proper Job and others. 

Winter Warmer was on and, as the barman proudly announced, “Fresh from the keg.” (Cask.) It was as good as we’ve ever had it – something like a beefed-up mild with rich chocolate and smokey notes.

The Original (AKA Bitter, AKA Ordinary) was zesty, dry and delicate.

And the Special was vinegar, but changed without any bother.

We’ve often declared that The Royal Oak on Tabard Street is the best pub in London but we haven’t visited since the change of management and the refurb, at least as far as we can recall.

The refurb was fairly gentle but the pub has lost a lot of its greebling – no doubt the property of the previous guvnors. No more strawberry pink mugs. No more tatty paperbacks. Grey wallpaper instead of rich red.

The Harveys beer is still superb. Sussex Best remains the English Orval (we think we coined this phrase, so we’re going to repeat it) but, this time, somehow managed to taste both funkier and cleaner than we remembered it.

The funkiness had also leaked across into the Old, which is really a sort of best mild, but had got drier not through hops but yeast character.

Cask Prince of Denmark (2019 vintage) was well on the way to becoming full-on Imperial Stout with waves of coffee, port, old wood and leather.

And finally, an honourable mention for Christmas Ale, which we’ve only had in bottles before and never found very exciting – it’s just sweet! But on cask, it reminded us of something like Gordon’s Finest Scotch Ale: a Belgian-ish take on a sweet British beer. With a bit of strawberry jam to follow, too.

We had half the pub to ourselves here but realised after a while that the only other customers, on the far side of the bar, were former colleagues of Ray’s from his Civil Service days. We had a chat, considered joining each other on one table, but decided against it. Another time, perhaps.

The classics checked off, we went off in search of something more adventurous.

At Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green, Siren Caribbean Chocolate Cake was as delightful as ever and lured us into trying their White Chocolate Pancake Stack, which was a bit of a mess. Like drinking maple syrup in coffee or, rather, a splash of coffee in some maple syrup.

Round the corner (ish) at the King’s Arms, we were pleased to find Burning Sky Porter – another of those straightforward but interesting dark beers that seem to be quietly in fashion right now. This pub was busier but everyone seemed to be committed to keeping at arms’ length from strangers and there was a reassuring breeze through the open door.

On our last day, we trekked to another old favourite, The Pembury Tavern, to drink our way through a full range of Five Points Brewing beers.

Lots were good but the standouts were (cask) Pale Ale, which is evolving towards Fyne Ales Jarl territory, and Railway Porter – which must now be The Main London Porter now Fuller’s can’t be bothered.

Actually, saying that sounds disrespectful to Five Points, and to this absolutely superb beer.

It tastes how you imagine a beer from the turn of the 20th century might: dense, smoky, warming, with bitter chocolate and coffee character, but beautifully balanced with subtle hops. 

We just could not stop drinking it and stayed for several more than we were planning to.

The pub wasn’t dead but it wasn’t busy either. Pleasant for us but worrying for them, no doubt.

Fingers crossed for January.

7 replies on “Notes from London in the season of the plague”

Interesting to read your perspective on London pubs being pleasantly, but probably unsustainably, quieter this year (and not just recently). I’ve never had as many conversations with London publicans and staff at the bar as I have this year.

>which must now be The Main London Porter now Fuller’s can’t be bothered.

Have they stopped making London Porter? Or is this a reference to declining quality? I remember it being decent, though I’ve not had it on cask in a long while.

Christine and I met with Fuller’s The Brewery over a month ago and suggested that having Porter in cask again – say for winter – would be a good step. The suggestion was not rejected out of hand and indeed cask Porter made a reappearance at Pigs Ear a few weeks ago. A small step but one nevertheless. Other ideas were thrown their way but that’s for another day.

Indeed, I’ve been drinking cask London Porter this month at the George IV in Chiswick.

For perhaps the new “main London Porter” though, I’d point to Anspach & Hobday who’ve stated this as their explicit aim for their London Black.

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